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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Julian Bond

Leading the NAACP's Battle for Affirmative Action, Diversity--and Computers

June 14, 1998|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is author of "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start." She interviewed Julian Bond at his American University office

WASHINGTON — Scandals big and small have besieged the venerable National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People--established in 1909 under the leadership of scholar-activist W.E.B. DuBois--in the last few years. First, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., was fired as executive director for using NAACP funds to help settle a sex discrimination and sexual harassment suit against himself. The next year, board chairman William F. Gibson was ousted because he used NAACP money for personal purposes. Another member was removed from the board after admitting pilfering $13,000 from a leukemia-stricken colleague. To try to set matters right, the NAACP tapped Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain Mississippi civil-rights hero Medgar Evers, as board chairman and installed former Congressional Black Caucus chairman Kweisi Mfume as president.

When Evers-Williams stepped down in February, longtime civil-rights activist Julian Bond was elected to take her place. Bond comes from the student civil-rights movement of the 1960s, whose leaders often felt the NAACP dragged its feet and was no longer relevant, despite its history of court victories against segregation. Now he must help the NAACP meet increasingly complex racial challenges.

Bond, 58, is no stranger to conflict. He engineered civil-rights demonstrations in Atlanta while a college student, eventually dropping out of Morehouse College to work in the movement full time. Elected to the Georgia legislature at 25, he was not seated because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He sued, charging violation of his First Amendment rights, and won. In 1968, he helped lead a challenge to Georgia's virtually all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention. In 1975, he was elected to the Georgia state senate where, among other things, he worked on redistricting to elect more black legislators. In a brutal fight for a congressional seat that he helped draw, he lost to his former civil-rights ally, John Lewis (D-Ga.). Now, one of his sons serves on the Atlanta city council and another is running for the Georgia legislature.

While in the legislature, Bond returned to Morehouse to earn his degree. Married to Pam Horowitz, a Washington attorney in private practice, he commutes between the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he is a lecturer in the history department, and American University in Washington, where he is a visiting professor of government. Asked what hooks his students, almost all of whom were born well after the glory days of the civil-rights movement, he says, "Personal stories--what I did when I was their age." The students all know about Martin Luther King Jr., but Bond tries to tell them of the lesser known people who were the movement's foot soldiers. "They are also surprised to learn that John F. Kennedy was not a raving civil-rights advocate. They think he was."

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Question: Myrlie Evers-Williams, your predecessor as NAACP chair, has warned that the organization must reinvent itself or risk becoming irrelevant. Is the NAACP, for example, in touch with today's black youth?

Answer: Yes, it is. But I agree with her. We're not doing what we're doing smart enough, partly because we're not using computers enough. If the governor of Texas does something about which we need to mobilize our members, well, we have a couple of dozen branches in Texas but we need to communicate with them. Many of our branch offices consist of a phone in a church basement. We can't fax them all. We are not able to mobilize this grass-roots apparatus that is our greatest strength. We've got to modernize our internal communications. California is probably more up to speed than most. But we have to be able to respond faster.

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Q: How did this happen?

A: We built our infrastructure in the 1950s. We're stuck in the typewriter age. We've gone beyond that, but not much. We're not up to date with the kind of technology every other advocacy organization has.

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Q: Getting back to the NAACP and young people: What's the organization doing to be relevant to their lives?

A: The NAACP has 350 high school and college branches. Of the secular organizations that have both adult and youth members, we have more youth members than any others. We have stay-in-school programs to encourage them not to drop out. We have an SAT training program so that they can do better on that test and get into a better college than they might otherwise. We have some voter registration programs run by kids--even kids too young to vote. They can knock on doors. We've had anti-drug campaigns among some of our branches. We've had anti-pregnancy campaigns. Our big campaign now is to save affirmative action.

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Q: What are you doing?

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